tue 23/07/2024

Opinion: The docusoap must die, again | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: The docusoap must die, again

Opinion: The docusoap must die, again

A generic mutation has come back from the grave, and it still sucks

Shit ahoy: The Cruise Ship

Television is all about borrowing. One clever new format – a mock doc, a makeover show, a clever-clever quiz – spawns a stack of near-identical clones. Most of them do their time until the format starts to tire, eventually to die a natural death. The only exception is the indestructible talent show. Say what you like about Simon Cowell, but in taking reality ever deeper into the realm of fabrication, he killed off the docusoap.

There’s barely been a nosey workplace series stuffed with twats mugging for the camera since. But for some reason the docusoap seems to have risen again. It’s the televisual equivalent of malaria.

The docusoap is, as the name suggests, a genetic and generic mutation. It bolts together two distinct forms of entertainment. (They’ve also done it with news quizzes and Gardeners' Question Time.) It came along when genuine observational documentaries became too expensive in the multi-channel environment, and it constructed narratives featuring so-called characters. Its unvarying task was to poke its nose into the business of the workplace, be it hotels or shops, airports or, in the most famous instance, a driving school. And now it’s back.

In recent months we’ve had films about British Airways, Aspreys, estate agents and a northern water authority. All these things have been done before, but never mind. This week ITV launched not one but two new additions to the genre. Champneys snooped around a swanky hotel-cum-spa, while The Cruise Ship is there to follow a floating hotel on its maiden voyage. In almost all cases these programmes are about the business of selling luxury. Of course luxury isn’t what it was. The more these places insist on their exceptionally high standards, the more they look like Butlins in a rope of pearls. Champneys (pictured below) on this evidence is a vortex of naff, while the Royal Princess is purgatory on the high seas. The Duchess of Cambridge instinctively got it right when she wore leopardprint to throw champagne against its hull.

As if assembled on a factory-floor production line, the dull routine of the docusoap is rigidly established. The cheeky voiceover, the pizzicato soundtrack, the plotlines all about specious deadlines and the imminence of chaos. And then there are the people. The docusoap trades in archetypes as faithfully as commedia dell'arte. Look down the cast list and there’s always the camp one, the gobby one, the stroppy one, the bossy one. Sometimes they are even presented as stars, like Dirk (pictured above) the German manager in The Cruise Ship (docusoaps being nothing if not unsurprising, there was also a German manager in Champneys). And once these have been cast, the camera crew sets off around the premises looking for walk-on gargoyles. Like a heat-seeking missile, it hunts down the unspeakable and encourages them to speak. The docusoap confirms an eternal verity: hang around long enough in front of a lens and it will make you look like a plonker. Some, like the spiv who owns Champneys, or the chatterbox groaning about a lack of mushrooms in The Cruise Ship, don’t have to hang around too long. And it doesn’t just apply to individuals. A Very British Airline managed to get egg on the face of an entire billion-pound brand.

One of the subplots of the docusoap is that media-savvy participants now know how to behave in them. It may often look like harmless showing off, but there's often something more coolly calculating at work. George the rather dreadful nightclub crooner in The Cruise Ship is doubtless angling for a career like the one sparked for Jane McDonald when she appeared in The Cruise. And even if no place beckons in the album charts or bestsellers lists, there's always the performance-related bonus. However hapless or incompetent commercial enterprises may appear to be in docusoaps, they are still able to use the exposure as a gigantic free advertisement. If employees play up to the cameras, the calculation is that ratings will go up and so will takings. If this revival of the docusoap continues, not long from now every big institution will vet job applicants for telegenicity, pending the day the docusoap camera crew arrives.

These are really films about the breakdown of the British class system, the primacy of foreign money and the democratisation of taste, about a bankrupt nation of entitled consumers. Easily the best of the recent round of docusoaps has been Watermen: A Dirty Business for the simple reason that it scrubbed off the varnish. It was about shit, but the people came up smelling of roses. More like that, please. The rest can go to hell.

These are really films about the breakdown of the British class system and the democratisation of taste

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